65 hours trapped as love of life dies next to him
"I CAN hear you!"
Those four words turned a nation's collective mourning into hope and joy as ski instructor Stuart Diver was found buried deep in the rubble of the Thredbo landslide which claimed the lives of 18 people, including Diver's wife Sally, just before midnight on July 30, 1997.
It was 5.37am on August 2, 54 hours after a terrifying gush of mud and water brought down two ski lodges, burying their sleeping inhabitants under thousands of tons of rubble.
Just hours earlier, then assistant police commissioner Ken Moroney had told reporters: "I think at this stage the chances (of finding anyone alive) are quite remote."
Rescuers working on the site, just below the Alpine Way in the popular ski town, were working furiously to clear the mountains of debris.
They were under immense pressure and had been criticised for the delay in mounting a rescue operation. Co-ordinators were waiting for experts to arrive from outside the area to determine whether it was safe for rescuers to enter the zone. Many times over the coming days, a siren would sound warning of possible slippage, forcing everyone off the site.
During one early morning session, firefighter Steve Hirst called for silence across the site - he thought he had heard something below.
"Rescue party working overhead - can anyone hear me?" he shouted.
Diver, who was almost about to give up hope after more than two days without contact with another human, shouted back.
"I can hear you!"
"Are you injured?"
"No, but my feet are bloody cold!"
The respected ski instructor was wedged between his mattress and a concrete slab so close his chest would touch it when he breathed. Almost freezing water was running across his body and at stages threatened to submerge him.
Tragically he had had to watch as wife Sally drowned when she was unable to keep her head above the torrent, stuck in the rubble that had cocooned them. Diver, then 27, had desperately fought to keep the water from her mouth, but he couldn't save her.
During an interview with 60 Minutes in 2017, the 20th anniversary of the disaster, Diver admitted things got so dark during those hours he had contemplated ending his life.
"There were a couple of times there when I definitely thought about taking my own life, but I didn't have the means to do it," he said.
In his book Survivor, Diver wrote of the horror of having to lie next to the body of Sally, the love of his life, and how he questioned whether being rescued would be worth the pain.
"While I had been given another chance, the memories of Sal dying came flooding back," he wrote. "Like the water that had taken her life the memories were drowning me. Sal's screams: 'Stuart, Stuart, Stuart'. Was surviving really that wonderful?"
When he was found, joy swept across the mountainside and around the country. Thredbo Landslide Commander Charles Sanderson couldn't wait to share the news with the huge media pack that had made its way to the alpine hamlet.
"A miracle has occurred and signs of life have been detected," he said.
"He is conscious and we are extremely hopeful of getting him out alive as soon as possible."
Paramedic Paul Featherstone had stayed with Diver through the ordeal, talking to him and even passing him a phone so he could call his parents, and was there when the sole survivor was eventually released.
"He played an integral part in my survival and his compassion and empathy is something that has stayed with me forever," Diver said when Featherstone retired in 2013.
Despite Sanderson's hopes of a quick extraction, it would be another excruciating 11 hours before Diver was pulled from the mangled lodges and loaded into an ambulance.
Thousands who had gathered at the site, many of them locals who had lost friends in the accident, screamed and cheered with joy.
In the days following the miraculous rescue, the mood at the landslide site returned to one of grief as bodies continued to be pulled from the wreckage. Many of those were senior workers at the resort who had been living at the lodge during the ski season.
Stories began to emerge from witnesses about the moment the earth fell away from the mountain.
Engineer David Eager, who was staying in a neighbouring lodge,
told The Daily Telegraph in the days after the disaster that he had heard a rumbling sound the night before the landslide.
"I heard it from my bedroom at Schuss Lodge about 10.30pm on the Wednesday night," he said. "It was like a steam train coming to a halt with a rumbling underneath."
Mr Eager said the noise was much quicker than on the night the lodges collapsed.
"It was less loud and only lasted about two seconds the night before," he said. "When the big slide happened it went on and on for about 10 or 15 seconds."
Others have likened the deafening noise to a cyclone.
Former political journalist Glenn Milne was holidaying in Thredbo with his wife and two daughters and was staying in the lodge directly next door when they were woken by the thunderous noise.
"It struck like a tornado hitting the building," he wrote in The Daily Telegraph at the time. "We were a bit over a metre-and-a-half away. You virtually stepped off the steps at the side of our lodge on to the rubble."
Investigations after the landslide found a leaking water main caused the land to slip. The NSW government paid out more than $40 million in compensation payouts to victims' families and others affected by the disaster.
Stuart Diver, after making a full recovery, married again years later but suffered another tragedy when his wife died from breast cancer. He still lives and works in Thredbo.